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Deaths of music giants Claude Nobs, George Gruntz: the Swiss we'll miss

When the subject turns to nations that have made major contributions to jazz, the conversation rarely focuses on Switzerland. (I can name a half-dozen noteworthy Swiss musicians, but it’s still a short list.) So the coincident deaths of George Gruntz (80) and Claude Nobs (76) – two of the most influential Swiss personalities in 20th-century music, both of whom passed away on January 10 – comes as all the more surprising.

George Gruntz, the Swiss jazz pianist and bandleader, died last week at 80.
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Of the two, Nobs’s passing, which followed a cross-country skiing mishap, has garnered the greater attention and coverage. That’s hardly surprising: his creation and stewardship of the Montreux Jazz Festival, idyllically situated on the northeast shore of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) in what Europeans know as the “Swiss Riviera,” made a world music capital of a sleepy Geneva exurb.

You can find the details all over the web (and Peter Keepnews’s succinct New York Times obituary here). Nobs conceived the idea of a jazz festival while working for the Montreux tourist office in the mid-60s. It soon became his principal occupation, along with directing the Swiss branch of the record conglomerate Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, which supplied many of the artists appearing at the festival. (Nobs, and the Swiss in general, never seemed to worry about the appearance of any conflicts of interest.)

On a regular basis, those artists managed to somehow make music history. I say “somehow” because the environment was often less than optimal. Despite operating in the country that invented time, Montreux has never been accused of punctuality. In the 80s and 90s, when I attended the festival a half-dozen times, the first sets of a triple bill would often run long, and when you added in the generous stage-change breaks, the headliner often took the stage after midnight; by then, the affluent crowds paid desultory attention, many of them having shown up partly for the music and partly to be seen.

Hardly ideal conditions for great music-making - and yet, time and again, and in spite of the scene, artists would come up with top-notch performances. Captured on tape via the festival’s state-of-the-art recording system, many of these became memorable albums. The common denominator was Nobs himself: a gracious host to the artists, he made them feel enough at home to do great work. And the musicians came to trust his judgment – so much so that Nobs could, on the fly, add one artist to another’s set, often achieving results as impressive as they were unexpected.

The list of vital albums recorded at the festival includes “Swiss Movement,” the first collaboration of Eddie Harris and Les McCann; “The New Tango,” the only recording by Gary Burton with Astor Piazzolla; Woody Herman’s “Herd At Montreux”; a slew of all-star concerts featuring various artists; and self-titled “Live At Montreux” albums by dozens of jazz legends, among them Gene Ammons, Count Basie, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dave Brubeck, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Hutcherson, Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, Wayne Shorter – even Sun Ra made a “Montreux” album. (An estimated 400 albums over the years have carried the Montreux imprimatur.)

Not just jazz, of course: born just as rock began to mature, with the jazz-rock fusion right around the corner, Montreux featured a gamut of genres almost from the beginning. As the festival veered further and further from jazz – to the point where barely 15 percent of the program now falls under even a liberal concept of the idiom – it became a running joke to wonder why “jazz” even remained in the logo.

Nobs maintained that “Montreux Jazz” had become a recognized brand, and that most people knew how the lineup shook out – with blues and rock headliners, and plenty of music from Africa and Latin America – no matter what the name said. But he continued to bolster the profile of jazz nonetheless, simply by keeping it on the schedule at this increasingly pop-oriented, increasingly upscale event. And when he built a new concert venue for the festival, he named it Miles Davis Hall, honoring jazz’s most recognizable name – who, not incidentally, appeared there often enough to warrant a 20-CD collection of those performances.

On one of those discs, the inestimable George Gruntz appears; in 1991, he led an all-star version of his concert jazz band, guest conducted by Quincy Jones, in a retrospective of Davis’s music. (It was also Davis’s third-to-last performance; the trumpeter died less than three months later.)

That concert, a mish-mashed train wreck of a show, called for Gruntz's Concert Jazz Band to play others’ arrangements. As such, it did no justice to Gruntz's skills which, along with his charming personality: typically Swiss in his attention to detail, and wonderfully impish in his low-key but slightly unhinged humor. Those qualities come to the fore in this lovely remembrance by the unsurpassed big-band trumpet ace Marvin Stamm, which originally appeared in Rifftides (an award-worthy blog written by Doug Ramsey).

Gruntz died after a long illness, reported the Swiss newspaper Tagblatt, which rightfully described him as “the internationally most influential jazz musician of Switzerland.” No argument from me. A fine pianist and a truly gifted composer and orchestrator, Gruntz’s musicianship and personality helped cast his music far beyond the hometown Alps. He was the face of Swiss jazz, and a strong enough presence to gather a slew of top American and European players into his Concert Jazz Band, many of whom – trombonists Ray Anderson and Dave Bargeron, trumpeters Lew Soloff and Franco Ambrosetti, tubaist Howard Johnson, bassist Mike Richmond – returned again and again to the always-shifting lineup.

Great places to start within Gruntz’s discography: “Happening Now!” (1987), “Blues ’N Dues Et Cetera” (1991), “Tiger By The Tail” (2005), and “Live At JazzFestBerlin” (1999), recorded at the festival where he served as artistic director for 23 years. But wherever you start, try to end up with Gruntz’s indelible gift to the city, “Chicago Cantata,” which the Chicago Jazz Festival commissioned and debuted in 1991.

In it, Gruntz brought together jazz, blues, soul, and gospel (after intensively studying the city’s scene and visiting its clubs). My notes from that concert remind me that the quite remarkable personnel featured several of the artists named above, along with the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors; saxists Von Freeman and Mwata Bowden; blues greats Billy Branch, Sunnyland Slim, and Carl Weathersby; and gospel giants Pops Staples and the Norfleet Family.

Gruntz recorded the work a couple years later with the WDR Big Band in Germany (with Freeman, Weathersby, and Branch reprising their roles); these days, unfortunately, it’s available only as part of “Radio Days,” a 10-CD anthology of Gruntz’s major works that came out in 2007.

The Chicago soloists had never appeared together before that Jazz Festival concert, and never did again after the recording in Germany. That makes sense: it took the greatest jazzman from the most famously neutral nation to assemble them all in one place.

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